Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army are making advances on different fronts as they push towards the ISIL stronghold of Mosul, but they are facing stiff resistance, and elsewhere in Iraq, ISIL has staged counterattacks.
ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, also known as ISIS, took full control on Monday of the town of Rutba in the western Anbar province as the approaching force tried to expel its fighters from Mosul, 700km north of Rutba.
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“They also attacked Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Sinjar close to the Syrian border,” said Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from northern Iraq.
“For two days ISIL forced Iraqi security forces to declare a state of emergency in the northern city of Kirkuk. Dozens of fighters targeted multiple locations in a sophisticated assault that some described as a message.”
Iraqi special forces, for their part, began shelling ISIL positions before dawn on Monday near Bartella, a historically Christian town to the east of Mosul that they retook last week.
With patriotic music blaring from loudspeakers on their Humvees, they then pushed into the village of Tob Zawa, about 9km from Mosul, amid heavy clashes.
After entering the village, they allowed more than 30 people who had been sheltering in a school to escape the fighting.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell under the control of ISIL in 2014.
Several countries are involved in the battle to reclaim the city, including Turkey which on Sunday confirmed its first attempted shelling of ISIL positions near Bashiqa, a key town near Mosul, at the request of Peshmerga forces.
“The Peshmerga forces have now reached the town of Bashiqa but are not inside it yet,” Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid said, reporting from Erbil on Monday.
“It may take a few days. They [Peshmerga] suspect that there are a few ISIL suicide bombers inside.”
Turkey’s moves on Sunday raised tensions with the Iraqi government.
Relations have been strained after Turkey sent hundreds of troops to the Bashiqa region to train anti-ISIL fighters.
The Iraqi government considers the move a violation of its sovereignty and has demanded a Turkish withdrawal. Turkey has ignored the call.
Elsewhere, the Iraqi Federal Police, a military-style force, pushed into a small village in the Shura district south of Mosul, where they fired a large anti-aircraft gun and rocket-propelled grenades as they battled ISIL fighters.
They later appeared to have secured the village, a cluster of squat homes on a desert plain, and handed out water and other aid to civilians.
The US-led coalition said it carried out six air strikes near Mosul on Sunday, destroying 19 fighting positions and 17 vehicles, as well as rocket and mortar launchers, artillery and tunnels.
Separately, Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog, called on Monday for an investigation into last Friday’s purported air strike in northern Iraq that struck the women’s section of a Shia mosque in the town of Daquq.
|Field notes from Stefanie Dekker in Erbil, northern Iraq|
Commanders from Erbil, Baghdad and the US are all sayingt hey are happy with the progress that is being made. But on the flipside, ISIL launched an attack on Rutba, in Anbar province, and took the entire town late on Monday night. Now there is a renewed push by Iraqi security forces backed by coalition and Iraqi air power to take back Rutba.
The assault was sort of a message from ISIL: Yes, you may be squeezing us on the battlefield when it comes to Mosul but we are still very capable of carrying out attacks in different places. So this is a concern. People will tell you they are expecting more such incidents.
We also saw an attack in Kirkuk in the last few days. It was a major security breach. So in the end, the fight for Mosul is not going to start any time soon. This could take weeks, and some people say even months.
The strike happened amid a large ISIL assault on the nearby city of Kirkuk that was meant to distract the Iraqi forces and their allies from the security operation around Mosul.
Human Rights Watch said Daquq’s residents believe the attack was an air strike because of the extent of the destruction and because planes could be heard flying overhead.
It said at least 13 people were reported killed.
The US-led coalition and the Iraqi military are the only parties known to be flying military aircraft over Iraq.
The US denied conducting the deadly strike.
Iraqi Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the Joint Military Command, confirmed that the Iraqi government was investigating the attack.
However, he declined to say whether Iraqi or coalition planes were flying in the area at the time of the explosion.
The campaign to retake Mosul comes after months of planning and involves more than 25,000 Iraqi troops, Kurdish forces, Sunni tribal fighters and state-sanctioned Shia militias.
It is expected to take weeks, if not months, to drive ISIL out of Iraq’s second largest city, which is still home to more than a million people.
ISIL has suffered a series of setbacks over the past year, and Mosul is its last major urban bastion in Iraq.
“What allowed ISIL to gain large traction in Iraq was the breakdown of the political order in Baghdad,” Feisal Istrabadi, former Iraqi ambassador to the UN, told Al Jazeera.
“Leaderships throughout the country will have to make the necessary compromises and political bargains to dry out the swamp that allows ISIL to thrive.”